Josh Blann had every intention of losing the MR340 last year and came pretty close.
The MR340 is an infamous four-day race each summer through the state of Missouri, with a launch from Kaw Point Park in Kansas City and a finish line to St. Louis.
Blann has always wanted to try a long river race, eyeing 100 and 200 mile challenges in his home state of Texas. But when he discovered the MR340, the bewildering improbability of going 340 miles in a kayak or canoe, really any paddle-powered boat, was too powerful to resist.
“It bills itself as the longest continuous canoe race in the world,” recalls Blann. “And I was like, ‘This is crazy. I have to do this.'”
Blann has found an accomplice: his brother, who celebrated his 40th birthday in the depths of pandemic misery, when fear and monotony created a life that was both boring and stressful.
Running out of options to celebrate the big milestone, his brother suggested trying one of those crazy river races, and Blann didn’t miss a beat. He signed up himself, his brother and a friend to participate in MR340.
“Now here’s the deal,” Blann told me a year later. “None of us live in the same place. So there was no training involved.”
All three had experience in kayaking, and significant experience. But they had never rowed together in the same boat. Which, it turns out, is different. The boat they rented, a kayak specially designed for racing, was owned by one of the greats of the MR340, which they believe could give them an advantage.
They did not realize their mistake until the day before the launch, when they took the boat around.
“We immediately fell off the boat,” Blann recalls. “It was a disaster. It’s like sitting on a pencil.”
Their ship was 30 feet long, but only 18 inches wide.
“So basically we’re really having a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting about this boat because we’re so worried,” Blann said. “We can’t even paddle. I mean, literally staying in the boat long enough to go down the river a few miles, it’s like we can’t run.”
The crew decided they had two choices: they could give up or change their expectations. They chose the latter.
“That’s when our last arrival became a strategy,” Blann tells me.
No one does the MR340 for fame or glory. Even a first place win won’t make you a household name.
The official description on the MR340’s website reads, “Imagine a race through the entire state of Missouri, just you and your boat launched against 340 miles of wind, heat, bugs and rain.” And that doesn’t even mention the loss of sensation in your limbs, sleep deprivation, hallucinations, or peeing in a kayak – all the miseries this particular river trip is known to inflict.
Certainly there are those who compete in the MR340 like real athletes. They train hard to achieve feats of endurance that most of us could never achieve. These boats are at the head of the peloton, take off on the starting line and are never seen again by the majority of the riders. Nothing about it is confusing. It’s the pursuit of excellence, I understand.
But how do you explain that the rest of the 550 boats – and the 800 participants they contain – signed up to launch this week? For these paddlers, winning isn’t even in the realm of possibilities. Besides, the Missouri River is not the French Riviera.
Vying for the end, Blann’s crew offers me a greater mystery.
These three middle-aged men with day jobs had no hidden winning agendas, throwing themselves well behind the front lines for fear of crashing into real competitors. While most racers stick to the mantra of ‘stay in the boat’, these guys have done the opposite.
“We decided that we were going to stop all the time. We were going to stop as often as we could,” says Blann.
It got easier the more they lingered on it.
“The first five minutes of paddling is pretty miserable,” says Blann. “But if you can tell your brain to shut up, your body will say, ‘Oh, that’s what we do. Now. We’re paddling all day, OK, that’s our life.'”
At this delirious moment of happiness, they spotted Mark Hein, a 60-year-old Eagle Scout, alone on the river.
“What’s really impressive about Mark,” Blann recalls, “is that he used a 12-foot-long pleasure boat. And if you don’t know anything about racing boats or kayaking races, imagine these. bikes that love Lance Armstrong. People who are really good at it, they have kayaks that are the equivalent of that, don’t they? Mark would be on Peewee Herman’s bike. It was like, this was not designed for speed at all. “
It was ultimately Hein who thwarted Blann’s dream of finishing last.
This was the fourth time Hein had tried the MR340. The first three times, the retired policeman obtained a DNF: Did Not Finish. By the time he met Blann’s crew, halfway through the 2020 race, Hein was determined to see it through.
Hein’s journey on the MR340 began in 2016, when his son was finally old enough to join him. He acquired a used canoe, but it had been poorly stored, leaving it flat on one side.
The father-son duo only managed a full day of paddling. On the second day, Hein’s son overheated. “He spent, oh, about an hour in an ambulance in the parking lot with bags of ice stuck on him,” says Hein.
The same son joined him again in 2017. Again, they lasted a day. “He was trying to lend his support,” Huh recalls, “but he just couldn’t handle it. I-really-wanna-do-this see. So we called him while we were still talking. ”
In 2018, Hein started running on his own, but spasms in his back and legs scared him. Hein called his ground crew for a ride home. “I dissuaded myself from it,” he admits. “I defeated myself there.”
2020 was Hein’s redemption.
Unlike Blann, who started last and stayed there, Hein managed to stay with the field for the first two days. That changed in Boonville, where he stopped to meet his crew.
Hein had only planned to stop for a little while, but as he climbed the bank of the river, he realized he had lost all feeling in his arms. He decided to take some Advil and put him to sleep, and then hopefully join the race in the morning.
Hein’s wife likes to tell the story of this part of the race. When she met her husband at this Boonville stop, he looked pretty bad. She helped him rest comfortably, but as she drove off she saw in her rearview mirror that she had not forgotten: her husband, lying immobilized next to his boat, with a crowd of shining eyes raccoon staring at it. She was convinced he would be eaten.
Fortunately, Hein didn’t turn into raccoon food. But having lost six hours to sleep, he set off from Boonville in last position.
“It was like, ‘Oh, you’re kidding me.’ And I mean, I was really, really angry with myself at that point. No one else to be angry with, ”Huh said.“ That’s the key part of being alone in it. the boat, everything depended on me. I chastised myself for about 40 minutes along the river. “
But then he gave himself a pep talk.
“It was my intention to finish,” recalls Hein. Coming out of this setback, a new mantra emerged: “Whether I’m floating face down next to my kayak or paddling in it, I’m going to finish.”
From that point on, Blann’s boat and Hein’s boat took turns crossing the finish line. Blann’s crew would make one of their infamous saves, and Hein would overtake them. They got back into their boat, with six paddles versus two for Hein, and they would overtake him right away.
They do not have want to to overcome it. They just couldn’t physically move their boat any slower.
“He was our hero,” says Blann.
Blann and his team wanted to challenge the vibe of 2020 on this river: “Getting out of the house, doing something that makes you feel alive and less miserable for a while, that was really special and wonderful.”
Hein’s reasons weren’t that different. He had followed stories about the MR340 for years, growing up with parents in towns along the Missouri River. But this time-consuming and physically questionable endeavor seemed out of reach for a parent who worked and was in charge.
“As a society, we’re sort of at this point where the average person is pretty limited on the real adventures available,” observes Hein. “If you’re really rich you can go to space. If you’ve got a lot of money you know I don’t want to, but you can climb Mount Everest.”
The Missouri River, on the other hand, offers this portal to an unknown world, right in the backyard of Kansas City.
“Once it’s dark, you know, other than going through towns, you know there’s no light, so you are, it’s kind of interesting,” says Huh. “You are that little point of light in the middle of nowhere.”
If on. Hein finished last. But he’s finished. He tested himself and survived. The kind of adventure some people pay for with wealth, Hein was able to achieve with mental toughness, a sense of humor, and the boat equivalent of Pee-Wee Herman’s bike.
This year Hein had a better boat. It’s not faster, but it’s easier to paddle. Hopefully he won’t lose the ability to move his arms.
When the MR340 starts Tuesday, barring flooding, Blann will be in Texas, wishing to be in Missouri. Now it is the working parent who cannot justify the adventure.
Hein will be on the river, however, aiming for everything but the last. He knows that crossing the finish line is a victory in itself.